The Chipping Sparrow (Spizella Passerina): A Brief Overview

Dutchess County is rife with wildlife, with birds standing out in particular. Out of all the species present in our neighborhood, the Chipping Sparrow stands out as a great example of bird behavior and ecology.


The Chipping Sparrow is quite distinct in its appearance. It is generally small in size with a particularly small bill. During breeding season, this bird is marked by an antique brown crown (Middleton, 1998). The bird also has a distinct black eye line. Its breast and throat is a neutral grey, as is much of its face. Its wings and tail are brown with black stripes, its wings marked by two distinct grey horizontal wing bars (Middleton, 1998). The sparrow’s bill is roughly black on top and brown on bottom. The female is very similar in appearance to the male, except that its crown may be more streaked with black or grey (Middleton, 1998).

Breeding Plumage

Out of breeding season, the Chipping Sparrow’s upper parts are darker and its cinnamon crown is obscured by grey feather edges and dark streaks (Middleton, 1998).

Non-Breeding Plumage








Social Behavior:

The Chipping Sparrow is similar to many other birds in terms of its basic behavior. This species engages in typical preening, head-scratching, and bathing in shallow waters (Middleton, 1998).  A threat display is evidenced when the bird lowers its head, spreads its wings, emits a threat call, and moves from side to side, while an appeasement display is shown to result from a crouching posture, trembling wings, and elevated head (Middleton, 1998).

Breeding season is when the sparrow is most territorial. At the beginning of the season, the male selects a territory and maintains it through song and threat display (Middleton, 1998). Females will defend the area of the nest and surrounding territory, if needed (Middleton, 1998).  These birds are generally tolerant of other species in their territory, and can feed communally in non-territorial areas (Middleton, 1998). However, during the winter (non-breeding season) the birds are far less territorial and can work in large flocks (Middleton, 1998).

Breeding Behavior:

Mating begins shortly after the return to the breeding area. The Chipping Sparrow is generally monogamous, with very few cases of polygamy recorded  (Middleton, 1998). A pair bond follows from a distinctive courtship display. The ritual consists of a great amount of song and short chases of the female accompanied by actions similar to a threat display (Middleton, 1998). The two then work together in gathering nest material (Middleton, 1998). Male song then decreases as the birds spend more time near the nest.

The pair begins looking for a nest site within one day of mating, preferring areas with a variety of plant life, as well as conifers specifically (Middleton, 1998). The female usually produces the nest, a “loosely woven cup,” while the male stays close by (Middleton, 1998). The same nest is rarely used twice in one season (Middleton, 1998).

Chipping Sparrow Nest

Chipping Sparrows generally produce two broods per season (Middleton, 1998). The female takes a major role in the welfare of the offspring. Incubation of the eggs is done by the female alone, as well as keeping newly hatched birds warm (Middleton, 1998). However, the male is primarily responsible for feeding during the first few days of hatching, as the female is preoccupied with maintaining the health of the offspring (Middleton, 1998).

Habitat and Foraging:

The Chipping Sparrow is found all over North America. Their preferred habitats include open coniferous forests, woodland edges, and lake/river shorelines (Middleton, 1998). Generally, the ideal space is abound with shrubbery and conifers, whilst bordering open space (Middleton, 1998). This makes the bird very easy to spot within Dutchess County. Winter habitats are generally similar in their preferred landscape to breeding habitats (Middleton, 1998).

Distribution of the Chipping Sparrow

The Chipping Sparrow generally feeds on seeds of grasses and annual plants, primarily focusing on the ground and low vegetation (Middleton, 1998). During the breeding season, however, the bird supplements its diet with insects and many other invertebrates (Middleton, 1998). Small fruits are a rare source of nutrition as well (Middleton, 1998). The Chipping Sparrow prefers a daily water source (Middleton, 1998).

This species, though simple on the surface, is a surprisingly complex member of the Dutchess County ecosystem.


Middleton, Alex L. 1998. Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:


Images (In Order):

Hopiak, Michael J. Adult Chipping Sparrow, breeding plumage. Web. 7 Apr. 2015. <>.

Woodward, J R. Chipping Sparrow, non-breeding plumage. Web. 7 Apr. 2015. <>.

Corado, René. Chipping Sparrow nest, California. Web. 7 Apr. 2015. <>.

Figure 1. Distribution of the Chipping Sparrow. Web. 7 Apr. 2015. <>.

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